Wednesday, March 20, 2013

84, Charing Cross Road: Review

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is an absolutely delightful book.  It is one of those rare things--a book that is not a vintage mystery that, having now read it from the library, I simply MUST get my hands on and own as soon as possible.  Yes, it's that good. It speaks directly to the soul of every book lover.

It begins in October of 1949 when Hanff, a poor proofreader and budding scriptwriter, first writes a letter to Marks & Company in London.  She is in search of inexpensive antiquarian books of good quality--something she can't find in her native New York. What begins as a search to quench her literary thirst turns into a twenty-year correspondence with Frank Doel (and other staff members at the British bookshop).  Although Helene writes often about her dream of visiting London one day, the two never meet and their correspondence becomes a lovely friendship based on their common love for the written word.  

This is a charming book that immediately won over this long-time bibliophile.  I can certainly understand Helene's raptures over receiving a perfect copy of a book long sought after.  I share her horror at finding that Marks & Co. wraps its shipments in pages from dismantled books (although I am dismayed to discover she had no problem tossing some of her lesser valued books in the trash to make room for more beloved books).  At just 100 pages, it seems hard to believe that two personalities could take such a firm hold on the imagination.  It is wonderful to read these letters from an era when one could get three antiquarian volumes (yes, THREE) for about $5.00 (and it doesn't make me too envious....).  Once I get my hands on my very own copy I will most definitely be rereading to discover any gems that were overlooked on this go-round.  Five stars--absolutely.  Filmed version is next on the docket.  Review to be added soon.

3/21/13: The film

Oh my.  How often does a film version of a book live up to expectations?  Not very.  But, oh my goodness, this does. Anne Bancroft is marvelous as the brash American looking for rare books in all the wrong places....until she discovers that ad for Marks & Co in London.  And Anthony Hopkins is perfect as the reserved British bookman who can't help smiling over the outrageous notes he receives from overseas.  The movie perfectly captures the time period as well as the camaraderie that develops between the two book lovers who never have the chance to meet.  I don't tear up often over movies, but I did when Helene had to cancel her plans for a trip to London in favor of necessary dental work and then again when she finally makes it "across the pond" after Marks & Co is closed and Frank Doel has passed away.  A touching, charming, delightful movie that breathes life into the letters that passed between these two.  A five-star movie as well as a five-star book.

I don't add too well in plain American. I haven't a prayer of ever mastering bilingual arithmetic. (p. 3)

Savage Landor arrived safely and promptly opened to a Roman dialogue where two cities had just been destroyed by war and everybody was being crucified and begging passing Roman soldiers to run them through and the agony. It'll be a relief to turn to Aesop and Rhodope where all you have to worry about is famine. (p. 7)

I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to "I hate to read new books," and I hollered, "Comrade!" to whoever owned it before me. (p. 7)

I require a book of love poems with spring coming on. No Keats or Shelley, send me poets who can make love without slobbering-- (p. 10)

WELL!!! All I have to say to YOU, Frank Doel, is we live in depraved, destructive and degenerate times when a bookshop--a BOOKSHOP--starts tearing up beautiful old books to use as wrapping paper. (p. 17)

WHAT KIND OF PEPYS' DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS?  this is not pepys' diary, this is some busybody editor's miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys' diary may he rot...i enclose two limp singles, i will make do with this thing until you find me a real Pepys. THEN i will rip up this ersatz book, page by page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT. (p. 31)

you better watch out. i'm coming over there in 53 if ellery is renewed. i'm gonna climb up that victorian book-ladder and disturb the dust on the top shelves and everybody's decorum. Or didn't I ever tell you that I write arty murders for Ellery Queen on television? All my scripts have artistic backgrounds--ballet, concert hall, opera--and all the suspects and corpses are cultured. Maybe I'll do one about the rare book business in your honor, you want to be the murderer or the corpse? (p. 47)

First, enclosed find $3, P-and-P [Pride & Prejudice] arrived looking exactly as Jane ought to look, soft leather, slim and impeccable. (p. 58)

Don't remember which restoration playwright called everyone a Varlet, i always wanted to use it in a sentence. (p. 61)

Why is it that people who wouldn't dream of stealing anything else think it's perfectly all right to steal books? (p. 61)

I'd love to have the Macdonald edition--or any nice edition. If it's Reasonable, of course. Nothing's cheap any more, it's "reasonable." Or "sensibly priced." There's a building going up across the street, the sign over it says:
     "One & Two Bedroom Apartments
     At Rents That Make Sense"
Rents do NOT make sense. And prices do not sit around being reasonable about anything, no matter what it ways in the ad--which isn't an ad anymore, it's a Commercial. (p. 69)

Challenges: 150 Plus Reading Challenge, Outdo Yourself, Library Books Challenge, Book to Movie Challenge, Book Bingo, A-Z Reading Challenge, Book Blogger Recommendation, 150 Plus Reading Challenge, Monthly Mix-Up Mania


Debbie Rodgers said...

You're right, Bev - this is a delightful book. I think it's time for a reread!

J F Norris said...

What a great book! My favorite English professor at college was once friends with Hanff when they were both actors back in the day. Must've been the late 50s or 60s. I saw photos of them both when they were young.

Every time I read books where characters or real people are buying collectible books for pennies compared to what I pay these days I feel like breaking down in a fit of hysteria. Oh for a time machine!

Bev Hankins said...

You find that time machine, John, you let me know. I want to go along for the ride!

Anonymous said...

I succumbed to the charm of the movie (and the earlier TV Movie version too if truth be told - in fact, it's even been adapted for the stage) - it really has charm to spare and for book lovers and lovers of books it is hard to beat - great one Bev.

Rick Mills said...

I have always enjoyed enjoyed this book. I have a 1974 Avon paperback copy. My wife and I also enjoyed a similar long-distance book-buying experience over many years with Glenn Smith of Akron, Ohio, who advertised in the Grit newspaper, and would send periodic hand-typed lists of books he had for sale. We often joke that someone cleaning out our estate would assume we were from Akron, since so many of our books are Ex-Akron Public Library.

You may also be interested in the book "Between Silk and Cyanide" by Leo Marks (nonfiction), 1998. From the blurb: "In 1942, Leo Marks left his father's famous London bookshop, 84, Charing Cross Road, and went off to fight the war. He was twenty-two. Soon recognized as a cryptographer of genius, he became head of communications at the Special Operations Executive (SOE) where he revolutionized the codemaking techniques of the Allies..."

Bev Hankins said...

Rick, that book does sound interesting!